A state-legislated ring of security around schools and child day care centers designed to protect children from convicted sex offenders may not be as secure as parents would like to believe.
A 2003 state law prohibits convicted sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school or day care facility. But the law applies only to those whose offenses occurred after the law was passed.
“If the offense occurred before July 31, 2003, they don’t have any restrictions living near schools, day cares, anything like that,” said Sgt. Julie Stephens, who manages the sex offender registry program for the Montgomery County sheriff’s office.
Later, lawmakers added pre-school facilities to the list, taking effect in cases where the offense occurred after July 1, 2007.
Nicole Barker, a parent who lives in Harrison Twp., was surprised to learn not all offenders are subject to the 1,000-foot rule.
“I have children and I don’t want them (offenders) anywhere near my kids,” Barker said. “It is very scary that they could be next door and I wouldn’t know it.”
In Montgomery County, 1,035 male and 21 female convicted sex offenders must register their residence with the sheriff’s office. It’s unknown how many convicted offenders actually live in the area.
‘These individuals repeat’
Enforcement of the law is a two-step process involving both the sheriff’s office and the county prosecutor.
Offenders found living too close to a school are notified that they have 30 days to move. Sheriff’s detectives then visit the new address and confirm the person is actually living there and is in compliance with the law.
Deputies also do checks on a regular basis, visiting offenders’ homes for compliance.
On a recent rainy Monday, Det. Robert Schumacher and Det. Brian Conley checked the addresses of several offenders on the list. Schumacher said the visits are not scheduled, though the men and women on the registry have come to anticipate them, particularly if they’ve moved recently.
“They know that we will be out to verify each time they register or change an address, but they don’t know specifically when we will be out,” Schumacher said. “Generally they will be told we will be out within 72 hours.”
Most visits take only a few minutes, but deputies also knock on neighbors’ doors in some cases to help determine if offenders live where they say they live.
Montgomery County Prosecutor Mat Heck said his staff gets involved when offenders within a restricted zone fail to relocate within the 30-day period. That could lead to a contempt of court ruling by a judge, potentially landing the offender back in jail.
Heck defends the law and has a ready answer to those who criticize singling out sex offenders for registration.
“There is good reason for that,” he said. “We have studies that show that many of these individuals repeat.”
False sense of security
Defense attorney L. Patrick Mulligan argues that the 1,000-foot rule offers people a false sense of security.
“I will grant you that this set of laws helps the police find the people who have committed the crimes,” said Mulligan, who has handled hundreds of sex offense cases in the Dayton region over three decades. “But it doesn’t stop any crimes from being committed. The vast majority of sex crimes are among people who know each other, the overwhelming majority.”
Mulligan said the 1,000-foot distance was a compromise reached in the legislature that “somehow would be the magic number.” He not only questions the effectiveness of the law but also the cost of having multiple detectives and deputies checking on the whereabouts of offenders.
Offenders also get frustrated because of the burden of complying with guidelines from the local sheriff, the Ohio Adult Parole Authority and the Ohio Attorney General, Mulligan said.
“And they’re not always the same thing,” he said. “And so it’s difficult for the clients to do what they’re supposed to do.”
Mulligan said the best way to improve the system is to give judges more discretion in handling cases. Thaddeus Hoffmeister, a professor at the University of Dayton School of Law, agreed.
“I have faith in our judiciary here in Ohio and I think they should be given more discretion in decision making, as opposed to telling judges they have to do it this way,” he said.
Researcher Shawn Rolfe, a Ph.D. student at the University of Louisville and Englewood native, said states have a variety of distances in their sex offender registry laws.
“It ranges from 500 feet to 2,500 feet. “On top of that, it is not just schools, it could also be pre-schools, day-care centers, parks, playground areas or even recreational centers,” he said.
Rolfe said studies show 85 to 95 percent of all sex offenses occur with someone the victim already knows, crimes for which a registry is of limited value. “And it happens in either the sex offender’s home or the victim’s home,” Rolfe said. “So when you think about the 1,000-foot restriction these are not people who are snatching kids off the street.”
At least one state — Louisiana — requires sex offenders to list their criminal status on Facebook or any other social media they use.
Hoffmeister, an expert in social media law, said current laws in Ohio haven’t kept pace with the online habits of predators and their victims.
“If they would (look at it) I think you would see some changes to at least try to reduce the risk of these offenders trying to reach out to folks online,” he said.
The most recent proposed change in Ohio law would require notification by mail to the adult residents of the offender’s own household.
House Bill 353, from State Rep. Margaret Ann Ruhl, R-Mount Vernon, was prompted by the case of a constituent whose son-in-law hid his conviction for importuning from his wife and family.
Libby Nicholson, director of Care House in Dayton, the region’s largest center for sexually abused children, said she appreciates the work by the sheriff’s office to track the addresses of offenders in the registry. But parents need to understand that sexual abuse is a very under-reported crime, she said.
“Offenders could be living right next door to you and not be on that website or not have their face on that postcard that comes in the mail. And people still need to know how to protect themselves.”
Nicholson said the best thing parents can do is pay close attention to their children.
“I would say to any parents: Be aware of where your child is going and who they are associating with. Do not allow them to be in situations where they are one on one with an adult who may take advantage of that situation.”